BMCR 2008.01.56

Onward to the Olympics: Historical Perspectives on the Olympic Games. Publications of the Canadian Institute in Greece, 5

, , Onward to the Olympics : historical perspectives on the Olympic Games. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2007. 1 online resource (xxvii, 376 pages) : illustrations.. ISBN 155458129X CA$65.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

As each summer Olympic year approaches, the attention of the world turns not only to sports and athletes but also to reconsider the ancient Olympic festival, from which the modern games take their name and claim inspiration. For example, a conference in Sydney in July 2000 preceded the Sydney Games (“Olympia and the Olympics: Festival and Identity in the Ancient World”) and a conference is planned in London for September 2008 (“Think the Olympics: Modern Bodies, Classical Minds?”), with the London conference not only stealing some thunder from Beijing but also eagerly anticipating the 2012 Games in London. This impulse was also felt as the Athens Olympics approached in 2004: a Pre-Olympic Conference was held at Aristotle University at Thessaloniki and another was held much further away from Athens in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. This last, a two-day conference in October 2003, was co-sponsored by Wilfrid Laurier University and the Canadian Academic Institute in Athens (now the Canadian Institute in Greece / l’Institut canadien en Grèce). It attracted some of the leading scholars in the study of ancient athletics. The ensuing collection of articles was edited by Gerald Schaus and Stephen Wenn and handsomely published by Wilfrid Laurier Press.

The stated aim of the conference was to explore the connections between the ancient and modern games and, more importantly, to bring together those scholars who study each. It was hoped that joint sessions might encourage discussion and exchange of ideas, so that scholars from quite different historical periods might learn from each other. It is certainly a wonderful idea, but the resultant book here under review maintains the division, as the ancient material (on which I admittedly shall focus) has been separated off from the papers on the modern games, though the two halves do share a glossary and an index. The first half of the book is concerned with “The Olympics in Antiquity” (13 papers) and the second with “The Modern Olympics” (10 papers). Technical language stays inaccessible to outsiders. For example, Greek terms — often in Greek script — pepper the pages of the first half. Indeed, so sharp is the split that there are even two separate lists for works cited. It is almost as if we have two books published together rather than one cohesive volume. Such a broad division into ancient and modern seems to indicate that the stated motivation for the conference was not fully realized. Except for Robert Weir’s chapter on coinage of the ancient and modern Olympics, very few papers actually attempt to explore the connections between antiquity and today; most authors stick to what they know. Fair enough. So do most reviewers.

Perhaps, however, the desire to explore these connections may still be realized. Few books or articles dealing with ancient sport have much to say about (or to?) the modern Olympic movement and similarly, those publications concerned with the modern games offer little beyond the vaguest of generalities about the ancient games, and often get it wrong. By editing and publishing the conference papers, Schaus and Wenn have managed to put in the hands of any interested reader a collection of articles between two covers that deal with both ancient problems and modern issues. How can anyone interested in the study of ancient athletics resist at least skimming through an article with a title like: “Duke Kahanamoku—Olympic Champion and Uncle Sam’s Adopted Son: The Cultural Text of a Hawaiian Conqueror” by Jim Nendel (243-251), or “Carl Diem’s Inspiration of the Torch Relay? Jan Wils, Amsterdam 1928, and the Origin of the Olympic Flame” by Robert Barney and Anthony Bijkerk (253-259). These, and many others in Part II, are important papers, especially for classicists like me who regularly teach an “Ancient Sport” course especially popular with non-classics majors. Most useful in this regard is Robert Barney’s overview of the modern Olympic Games (221-241).

There is much that the two sides can learn from each other, especially with respect to the cultural significance of sport and sporting spectacles in society. That said, the division between the ancient Olympic festival and the modern games will probably persist. The two are not the same, whatever the similarities may be found, real or imagined. For example, contemporary commentators who wish to stress the ideals of peace and unity and brotherhood claimed by the modern Olympics have made much of the so-called “sacred truce” of ancient Olympia. But this “truce” in no way sought to promote peace and certainly cannot be linked in any way to the notion of the brotherhood of humanity. Ancient athletics, always celebrated in connection with festivals of the gods, were not confined to Olympia, of course, and were intended to demonstrate the power of the gods and the power of men and boys. Rather than bringing people together, athletic festivals excluded non-Greeks (and women) and may even have served to re-enforce divisions within Greek society, as has been argued by Mark Golden (not a contributor to the present volume).1

The differences between the ancient and modern games receive a full treatment by Schaus in his introduction and by Nigel Crowther in his article, “The Ancient Olympics and their Ideals”. Crowther’s first paper in the volume,”The Ancient Olympic Games through the Centuries”, serves as an overview of the long history of Olympia, from its earliest beginnings in myth and ritual to the Roman period. With respect to this later period, Crowther reveals something of a bias evident in much of the scholarship of ancient athletics: the “Golden Age” of Greek sport in the late Archaic and Classical Periods underwent a decline in the Hellenistic Period and certainly suffered badly under the Romans. In discussing the ancient evidence in his introduction to the work, Schaus too comments that one of the important literary descriptions of the sanctuary at Olympia comes from Pausanias in the mid-second century AD, “well after the games had passed their ‘Golden Age'” (xix). Crowther notes with some sadness it seems that “by the time of the Empire, cult statues of Roman emperors and generals were found in the Sanctuary next to those of Greek gods” (8). For Crowther, Nero’s “antics” at the 211th Olympiad (postponed until AD 67 so that the emperor could compete at Olympia as part of his grand tour of Greek agonistic festivals) “showed how powerless Elis had become” (8). Contrary to this view of decline in the Roman period, however, it is rather that Greek athletics and athletic festivals flourished and prospered then as never before. Games modeled specifically on Olympia were found all over the Mediterranean (such as the Sebasta in Naples). Moreover, Nero’s “antics” in Greece should in no way be seen as a sign of disrespect to the Greek games. Instead, he took them extremely seriously (see Suet. Nero 24) and may even have based his claim to rule on his agonistic success.2

In the next paper, “Politics and the Bronze Age Origins of Olympic Practices”, Senta C. German explores the origins, not strictly of the games at Olympia, as the title suggests, but rather of early Greek athletics in general. German looks far beyond the traditional date of 776 BC all the way back to the Minoans and Mycenaeans and does note that there is evidence for the Bronze Age occupation of the site. There is, however, little to suggest that the site was a centre of athletics or cultic activity. The next two papers (Thomas K. Hubbard, “Pindar, Heracles the Idaean Dactyle, and the Foundation of the Olympic Games”, and Max Nelson, “The First Olympic Games”) examine the early Olympics from two very different points of view. Hubbard explores the myths connecting Herakles to the site and Nelson reviews the scholarship around the venerable, but probably wrong, date of 776 BC.

Paul Christesen, in his paper “The Transformation of Athletics in Sixth Century Greece”, examines the explosion of agonistic festivals during the later archaic period. He discards the older theory that the rigors of the hoplite phalanx made athleticism necessary (60) and then focuses on the rapid growth in interest in sport in the sixth century. Starting from the idea that athletic competition was a collective activity that underpinned the structure of society at the very beginning of the archaic period (eighth century BC as can be seen in the Homeric epics, Christesen argues that athletics “played a vital role in elite competition” (62) and indeed that participation itself was enough to mark one as a member of the elite. Thus, Christesen notes, when Odysseus claimed exhaustion and declined to participate in the games of the Phaiacians, Euryalus heaped abuse on him, calling him little more than a money-grubbing merchant ( Od. 8.145-164). To establish his credentials as a member of the elite, Odysseus must then compete, something which he does quite successfully, of course. By the sixth century, however, the participation of non-elite hoplites in the defense of the polis, in politics, and increasingly in the athletics of the gymnasium represented a “middling” of society, and was all made more possible by the adoption of athletic nudity by the non-elite hoplites. “The participation of elites and non-elites in the same activity, on the same terms, simultaneously minimized the difference between these two groups, while the absence of clothing, one of the most commonly employed social markers, limited social-economic stratification” (64).

After Crowther’s second article, referred to above, in which he explores and explodes the ancient reality of some of the modern Olympic movement’s claimed links to Olympia, we then have Victor Matthews’ interesting examination of Olympic losers and why some were remembered. If we believe Pindar, they were to slink away in the dark corners to avoid taunts ( Pyth. 8.86-87). David Romano’s paper, “Judges and Judging at the Ancient Olympic Games” surveys the duties of the judges at Olympia specifically, which included organizing the games, supervising the training, as well as judging the events. Aileen Ajootian’s paper looks at a great variety of evidence for the draw for opponents in paired competitions. We realize in reading this just how little we know about many of the actual events at Olympia. This is confirmed by Hugh M. Lee in his paper examining the jumping event in the pentathlon: “The Halma : A Running or Standing Jump?”

Other aspects of the ancient Olympic festival are treated. Donald Kyle examines the limited evidence for the participation of women in ancient athletics and Olympia in particular in his paper, “Fabulous Females and Ancient Olympia”. Gerald Schaus examines the archaeological evidence for a running track at Stymphalus in the central Peloponnese and the connections between this small city and Olympia in particular. As mentioned above, the final article in Part I, “Commemorative Cash: the Coins of the Ancient and Modern Olympics” by Robert Weir, serves to link the ancient (especially the Roman period) and modern games. He studies a parallel phenomenon in the modern games: the issuing of commemorative, souvenir, coins.

The book is dedicated to the memory of Victor Matthews from the University of Guelph, one of the organizers of and participants in the conference, who died in November 2004. To one so interested in ancient Greek sport, modern Olympics, and an athlete himself, this important collection of papers is a fitting memorial.

Table of Contents:

Part I: The Olympics in Antiquity

Nigel B. Crowther, “The Ancient Olympic Games through the Centuries” 3-13.

Senta C. German, “Politics and the Bronze Age Origins of Olympic Practices” 15-25.

Thomas K. Hubbard, “Pindar, Heracles the Idaean Dactyle, and the Foundation of the Olympic Games” 27-45.

Max Nelson, “The First Olympic Games” 47-58.

Paul Christesen, “The Transformation of Athletics in Sixth Century Greece” 59-68.

Nigel B. Crowther, “The Ancient Olympics and their Ideals” 69-80.

Victor Matthews, “Olympic Losers: Why Athletes Who Did Not Win at Olympia Are Remembered” 81-93.

David G. Romano “Judges and Judging at the Ancient Olympic Games” 95-113.

Aileen Ajootian, “Heroic and Athletic Sortition at Ancient Olympia” 115-129.

Donald G. Kyle, “Fabulous Females and Ancient Olympia” 131-152.

Hugh M. Lee, “The Halma : A Running or Standing Jump?” 153-165.

Gerald P. Schaus, “Connections between Olympia and Stymphalus” 167-178.

Robert Weir, “Commemorative Cash: the Coins of the Ancient and Modern Olympics” 179-192.

Works Cited in Part I: 193-218.

Part II: The Modern Olympics

Robert K. Barney, “The Olympic games in Modern Times” 221-241.

Jim Nendel, “Duke Kahanamoku—Olympic Champion and Uncle Sam’s Adopted Son: The Cultural Text of a Hawaiian Conqueror” 243-251.

Robert K. Barney and Anthony Th. Bijkerk, “Carl Diem’s Inspiration of the Torch Relay? Jan Wils, Amsterdam 1928, and the Origin of the Olympic Flame” 253-259.

Jonathan Paul, “The Great Procession: A Content Analysis of the Lake Placid News and the Los Angeles Times‘ Treatment of the 1932 Olympics” 261-271.

Kevin B. Wamsley, “Womanizing Olympic Athletes: Policy and Practice during the Avery Brundage Era” 271-282.

Courtney W. Mason, “The Bridge to Change: The 1976 Montreal Olympic Games, South African Apartheid Policy, and the Olympic Boycott Paradigm” 283-296.

David A. Greig, “Splitting Hairs: The Struggle between the Canadian Federal Government and the Organizing Committee of the 1976 Torontolympiad concerning South African Participation” 297-307.

Stephen R. Wenn and Scott G. Martyn, “Juan Antonio Samaranch’s Score Sheet: Revue Generation and the Olympic Movement, 1980-2001” 309-323.

Tim Elcombe, “Olympic Ideals: Pragmatic method and the Future of the Games” 325-333.

Mark Dyreson, “‘To Construct a better and More Peaceful World’ or ‘War Minus the Shooting’?: The Olympic Movement’s Second Century” 335-349.

Works Cited in Part II: 351-358.


1. Mark Golden, Sport and Society in Ancient Greece, Cambridge, 1998.

2. See John F. Miller “Triumphus in Palatio” AJP 121 (2000) 409-422 for further discussion of Nero’s procession into Rome after his return from Greece (with bibliography).